Cambo Garden Estate

16th - 31st May

Front of the main house & estate where there are meadows and wild horses running around picturesquely. Cows are sometimes brought in to graze in this area too.

It felt like a spiritual and philosophical tour when Elliott Forsyth, the Head Gardener of Cambo Estate Gardens first took me around the gardens and explained to me how they approached their planting and how the management of the garden worked. For the latter he didn't take want to take a top down stance, but wanted everyone to be able to contribute equally like ideas and be self-motivated. He spoke precisely and calmly, people development was just as an important to him as the development of the garden. Even at break time, implements were clanged together to resemble a bell to gather everyone, which was inspired by Elliott's trip to a monastery to do meditation.

The garden area as a whole appears to be around 4 to 5 acres, 2.5 acres of it is a walled garden with an  unique feature of having a burn running through it, which also helps with the frost not settling. The house, garden and estate belongs to Catherine and Peter Erskine, with Catherine being a knowledgeable gardener herself. Peter Erskine has a long family lineage and connection with the estate since 1668. As well as the garden being open to the public all year round, the house is ran as a B & B and events place, there is a tea room, plants sales, woodland and even a golf course as part of it, plus land that they lease out e.g. to farmers etc.

When Elliott first took on the garden, then as a Victorian kitchen garden it was no longer sustainable and was nearly closed down. But Eliot decided to try a different tact and turned it into more of an ornamental garden. He was inspired by Humelo - Piet Oudolf's garden - his philosophy of a plant & garden looking good from when it begins to grow to when it dies. And by Hermanhoff - the beautiful at once formal & informal garden in Germany, and even Great Dixter, having met Christopher Lloyd himself. Excited by these gardens he came back to try out experiments of naturalistic plantings, right at the beginning before this trend caught on in the way that it has in the UK in the last few years.

They also do perennial prairie planting - which often gets confused with naturalistic planting, but instead of just a style it actually follows different mesic zones (drier & more moist regions) found in a prairie, using plants adaptable to the climate here - which is fairly dry (receiving only 800mm of rain per year on average as opposed to 3m in the west; the weather is also dictated by the sea as it is so close to the coast). His wife Susan is an artist, a painter and from her he learnt about art & colour theory and this features strongly in his designs for borders also.

The prairie garden outside of the walled garden, an area that use to be an old paddock and is about 5 years old. This is early in the season (May). The building in the background is the beautiful old stables that Cambo are hoping to renovate into an educational centre from Heritage Lottery funding and donations, and is part of their move in becoming a charity status, a model similar to the one Great Dixter took on too.

With limited resources including staffing, it is very much about minimum input and maximum output. The more gardens I visit, the more I respect and am impressed with just how much Elliott and his team is able to achieve with so very little, without seemingly to compromise on quality. There are only two full time members - Elliott and Duncan Hall - Assistant Head Gardener and a HBGBS trainee. A part-time worker and transitory help from people like landscape design students from Blois, France (where there is a renowned landscape design school) and WWOOFing volunteers (Working On Organic Farms - an organisation where people go volunteering in different places in return for board and food - Cambo is not strictly organic per se, but sites do not have to to be certified and chemicals are minimally used & definitely not in the fruit and veg areas, only paths and very pernicious weeds in flower borders are treated. It is also an unusual set-up for WOOFing but then WOOFers get to experience something a bit different).

One of their key time/ resource saving methods is to not put too much nitrogen in the soil, so that growth is not soft and sappy and needs staking. This is a bit mind boggling and a bit of a relevation to someone who has come from a very labour intensive garden where almost everything is lovingly & artfully staked to have it look as good it does. It is as if they deprive/ stress the plant alittle (there is a balance to this - not to the point that it looks awful), so that they are stronger, tougher and more resilient plants & can stabilise themselves more. This of course includes choosing the right kind of plants. In fact Elliott has for the garden what he calls the Master List of plants that can be used in this garden and for each section he designs he draws upon this list to make a further list specific to & suitable for the area he is planning to plant up. Their approach to the prairie is fascinating, they treat it almost like a meadow and in February they cut it down with a scythe cutter and leave the cuttings on the ground as a mulch, and it is technically the only 'feed' the plants get.

One of the veg patches.

What I got most out of Cambo is learning and thinking about design, which plays a fundamental part in the formation of this garden. At approximately 20 years it is still a relatively young garden, Elliott describes it as a lanky teenager still stretching out, with a lot of development still taking place. A lot of work is put into planning before a border is planted up. The idea is that putting the time in this initial process minimises the work required afterwards and helps them get the most out of their borders, for e.g. creating borders that would look good for at least three years before any major work has to be done to it. On average Eliot makes five design plans per year. Good foundations are being built and progressed upon slowly but surely.

One of Elliott's incredibly detailed plans that are like artworks in themselves, which Duncan is reading to place plants for a new winter prairie garden.

In the design process, emphasis is made on observation (just like in permaculture) - looking at what's there already, what the habitat ('the natural environment of the area') is like etc. and discussions about the planting are encouraged. Understanding the habitat and choosing plants that would suit that area is most vital to them, as they do not have the time or resources to give extra care to plants that are not in the right place (like putting a lawn in a desert or making acid beds when your soil is alkali so you can grow Camellias & Rhododendrons). So they look in particular at whether or not a plant is stable or not - i.e. easy to anticipate - e.g. is it a plant that will last a long time (10 years for instance). A plant that seeds too much or are aggressive spreaders can be regarded as unstable.

Before choosing plants the theme and season of interest/ timing for a site is also considered, for e.g. the colour palette, what type of planting it is - woodland, moist, dry etc. If the main interest is to be in spring or summer. Again like at Kerdalo I was brought back to thinking about seasonality, as Dixter was all about successional planting - as much interest all year round as possible, I have never thought about what season I would like an area of a garden to look best in. But this does not mean big brown patches of nothing at certain times of the year, plants are still more chosen on the basis of how hard they work, such as if there if they have buoyancy or interesting burnished tones in their emerging foliage, how they flower and how they die - the same principles that stand strong at Dixter and with Piet Oudolf.

Borders are thought about in layers, it was there that I came across the term signal plants, a small amount of plants that are scattered/ bounced through a border and when they flower indicates the beginning of seasonal interest for that border (e.g. in May). This is followed by the early plants (e.g. interest in June) building up to the peak plants - the flowering focus (e.g. July - Aug) and the late layer (the last wave of interest from Sept - Oct). Then there are the core plants - the plants you absolutely have to have in the border.

In the photo below for instance the Thalictrum aquilegifolium & Thalictrum aquilegifolium 'Purpureum' are the signal plants, but the Allium hollandicum aren't because they don't really take up much space, they can be easily grown among plants and their foliage don't have to be taken account of.

This cast some thoughts on design and gardening - as discussed with trainee at the time Jenny Rafferty who was working on a design, it makes you design more on the basis of what is required for the site and not just around your favourite plant(s), which might not be the best one(s) for that area. This is not saying that one has to stick with this rigidly as a rule, but it is interesting to work with restrictions sometimes.

Other important aesthetic features to consider of course are height of plants - and if there are things like graduation of height required, form - the habit of the plant, whether they're arching, transparent, heavy or upright etc. And this relates to the 'layers' of plants for e.g. whether they make low/groundcover or canopy plants etc.

Colour - although Elliott doesn't use the colour wheel, he does follow strong art theory of form and colour, and the way he approaches colour takes into account how colours are made - what combinations would be complementary based on these compositions. He is cautious of the use of pink - he generally feels that there are two colour schemes with or without pink - this we had amusing conversations about, since I have come from a garden where all colours go and probably defies all colour logic and rules.

They have been using the same methods to create a Winter Prairie garden and a South African border. It is like art meets science and maths, where Elliott and his crew approach their planting like scientists.

One of my photos, the tulips are just going over and signature plants like Asphodelus albus & Astrantia major 'Claret' are just coming in.

Photo of same area in August from Elliott's photo archive.

Photo © Elliott Forsyth

In relation to design we also talked about one personally going through the creative stages. According to Elliott these are the possible stages:

- Uninformed Intuition - the beginners stage where you just jump in and give it a go.
- Theory - where you are in the process of creatively developing your blueprint, this is the more conformist stage where you follow, replicate/ mimic the ideas that you like as part of learning about/ understanding them. This stage shouldn't be rushed and one should take their time with this stage - as long as it is necessary
- Informed Intuition - this is where you start 'owning' ideas, where gardening from the gut starts to come from and where you let go of the safety net.
- The Extremes - it is at this stage that playing with different polars can create interesting new things.

He felt that people tend to fall into two groups - Copiers and Innovators (and there is no implication made that one is better than the other). But some people happily continue in the copy stage and others springboards things into the new.

We agreed that each stage should be honoured and any of them should be approached with a beginner's mind, which made a good posture for learning. Some of the good tips that I took away from our conversations was that I should always not be afraid to just sketch, make more use of an eraser and to practice designs whether or not they would be actualised.

Other things that are going on at Cambo is that their old victorian greenhouses are going to be restored soon. It holds the National Collection of Galanthus, which is a big thing there, culminating in what looks like snowdrop disco events in winter, where the flowers are lit up by coloured lights, and people can do night time tours to look at them. So as the garden goes from strength to strength, I take with me one of the things that Elliott said - to remember to enjoy the process and not just be concerned with getting to the finishing line.

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  1. I've been drawing and re-drawing a front garden for my uncle for months now. I don't expect he'll use any of my plans but I have to say that it has been great fun and an impetuous to read a lot of books and look at a lot of photographs. Every time I see something new I like it has me grasping for the graph paper and erasing everything all over again so I appreciated this post especially - glad to know that copying is ok! Also made me contemplate WOOFing here... seems like a good place to learn and contribute.

  2. Sorry Flourists, slow with my updates on my blog, slow with my replies to comments. It doesn't help that I am working for on a private blog at the moment too! Whether your designs are used or not, I think it's great that you're practicing even if it's just for yourself. I'm sure when the right moment/ space comes when you are able to implement your ideas, you'll be all the more ready for it.

    WOOFing can vary hugely and the experience depending on the place. There are unofficial forums I think on facebook that gives you a sense of places people have been to and what they are like. And I think there is a version of WOOFing in a lot of different countries.